National Geographic : 1972 Mar
ON'T TRY THIS with false teeth! Rudolf and Gerda Pedrola's jaw-wrenching act (left) depends for success on the muscular aerialists' bulldog bite. Rudolf twirls his wife from a device that both clench only with their teeth. As she hangs, she begins spinning in ever-accelerating revolutions that blur her features, transforming her into a sequined whirlwind. After more than 25 years as an aerial team, the German-born couple talk increasingly of retiring to their Florida ranch. But they will leave behind the time-honored legacy of circus folk-their offspring. Reared in the world of tinsel and tights, Dagmar Pedrola (right), 23, chose a trouper's career "because I just couldn't imagine waking up each day in the same town." Here, at the outskirts of West Jefferson, North Carolina, she sharpens her wire-walking talent on a cable fence. When she came down, she tapped her shoulder and said in her rich German accent, "It hurts so much-and what I just did was not even a trick." I asked her whether she would per form that night. "Oh, of course," she said quickly. "When the crowd applauds, all your troubles go away." There was a blast from the ringmaster's whistle, and his voice filled the tent: ". . . And now in the center ring, the sen sational Pedrolas!" The pair climbed swiftly up the high rig ging, and for a few minutes, as they spun and flipped and twirled while hanging by their teeth, Gerda's troubles did go away. So did the troubles of a tent full of circus fans. And that, I discovered, is a part of the daily magic of the traditional American tent circus. We-my wife, my 15-year-old daughter, and I-joined that circus in late March in 414 Orlando, Florida. For weeks we hopped across the Southeast, each day hurrying past fields and pine-clad countryside shrouded with early-morning mists. We lived in a large motor home in the "backyard," where the performers park their trailers beside the big top, and watched and participated in the part of the circus few fans ever see. A tent circus, we found, is a heady mixture of hokum, noise, salesmanship, dedication, and talent. It is a fragile thing, at the mercy of weather, mechanical failures, human ex haustion, and the whims of a public oriented to television and the movies. It is a world of tent workers who drift from circus to circus, known only by nicknames: "Whitey," "The Fox," "Bird Liver," "Gypsy Red," "Super Chicken." And it is a life of lost sleep, meals grabbed on the run, and almost daily moves from town to town.